Arsenal 0 – 0 Chelsea: Stalemate sees Mourinho in his element

Arsenal 0 – 0 Chelsea
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This match was a Mourinho wet dream…
Everything went almost exactly as he planned it.

Having spent much of the build-up lavishing praise on Mesut Ozil, he subsequently set up his team to ensure the German would be denied space for the majority of the game. Mourinho’s admiration does not extend to affording the German international much freedom.

The Portugese augmented his ‘deep block’ of Mikel and Lampard with Ramires. Although ostensibly starting on the right flank, the Brazilian was tasked with tucking in to crowd the midfield, much as Ray Parlour did for many years at Arsenal.

Every change he made was smart. He left out Luiz, knowing Cahill and Terry would cope better with the robust threat of Giroud. He even left Oscar and Mata on the bench, opting for the hard-working but erratic Willian (aka ‘The New Kalou’).

It’s not so much that Wenger can’t beat Mourinho — it’s that Mourinho is expert at finding ways to stop him. Our boss invariably sends his team out play the same way, whereas Mourinho will select a team specifically designed to nullify the opposition. It’s ugly, but it works. The stats back it up.

“If you can’t win the match, don’t lose” is becoming something a mantra for Wenger…
It started as a reaction to the defeat to Swansea last season, and was reinforced after Robert Lewandowski’s late winner for Dortmund a couple of months back.

There was a palpable fear of losing in similar circumstances tonight. The fans cried out for changes, but Wenger stuck with XI he started with, anxious that an unnecessary switch might upset the rhythm and, crucially , the defensive balance of his team.

In some ways it’s commendable, and shows Wenger’s growing pragmatism.

However, at some stage Arsenal are going to have to gamble, and accept the risk of defeat. Too many draws could prove costly in such a tightly-contested league.

The referee, Mike Dean, was awful…
I feel justified in saying this because although the majority of decisions went against us, there were plenty he called in our favour that baffled me too. Tomas Rosicky, for example, should have been booked long before he was eventually handed a yellow card.

The two major talking points were the Mikel tackle on Arteta and Willian’s trip on Walcott inside the penalty box. Both were well within Dean’s view, and yet both went unpunished.

It was plain odd. I don’t believe he’s biased, but I do believe he is a bad referee.

I can only think there’s a contrary streak in Dean; something that enables him to think he sees something thousands of fans and hundreds of cameras don’t. He enjoys the power and he revels in the controversy.

This match was haunted by the ghosts of two strikers past…
When Olivier Giroud shanked our most presentable chance wide at the near post, I can’t say I was surprised. The Frenchman is now without a goal in his last six games.

It’s the sort of chance the great centre-forward of Arsenal’s past would have gobbled up. Robin van Persie, in particular, frequently buried opportunities from that precise position.

On the other hand, had this Chelsea performance been augmented by the presence of our nemesis Didier Drogba, they might well have emerged victorious. Neither of these sides a boast a centre-forward to match their previous greats.

I don’t know what people expect from Arteta…
After the game Jose Mourinho admitted that Chelsea allowed Arteta to have the ball, knowing he would not cause significant damage. This is not because Arteta is a poor player, but because Chelsea expertly blocked off all available avenues to the Spaniard. He cannot pass to a team-mate who is marked. He can’t create a clear path where one doesn’t exist. He’s a midfielder, not Moses.

Thomas Vermaelen played well…
There were a couple of customary hairy moments, but generally the skipper looked assured alongside Per Mertesacker. Arsene Wenger did not say when Laurent Koscielny would be fit to return, but Vermaelen showed he is capable of being a fine deputy in the interim.

Finally, congratulations to the winner of the Warrior #SuperHeat boots competition: Rob Stein. I’ll be in touch shortly to help sort you out with your prize.

Other pieces of mine on the game: ESPN | Bleacher Report

Meeting Thierry + Win Free Warrior boots (It’s Christmas!)

On Tuesday afternoon, I was stood in the Emirates Stadium’s rather swanky Diamond Club, waiting for the screening of the new ‘Arsenal Legends: Thierry Henry‘ film.

I was chatting away to Tim Stillman of Arseblog fame – two fish in unfamiliarly opulent waters. Suddenly, Tim’s eyes lit up. Someone was approaching us – someone Tim recognised and, judging by his widening smile, somewhat liked. I felt a hand on my back. I turned around.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Thierry.”

I’ll be honest: I was starstruck. I muttered something about my name being James, as if it remotely mattered to Him, and just about managed a handshake. He might have felt me tremble. I was in the presence of a genuine hero of mine. I suspect Henry will be the greatest player I ever see in an Arsenal shirt. At his best, he was truly electrifying.

When Arsenal invited me down to the screening, I was flattered. When they mentioned Thierry would be there, I was excited but thought little of it. I imagined a crowded press junket with plenty of red rope and red tape.

What was most extraordinary about this event was the intimacy. As this video on Arsenal.com shows, there can’t have been more than 30 people there to watch the film. Among them were Thierry and his family, and a selection of other Arsenal legends.

I can’t believe I was in a room with the likes of Thierry, Ian Wright, David Seaman, Martin Keown, Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell and Ray Parlour – and it wasn’t Heaven. I have lived to tell the tale. Truly, it was an honour to be there.

Being present allowed me to get an extra degree of insight in to Henry, the man. There were touching moments, such as when he pointed out the ‘T’ celebration to his young daughter, explaining that it was devised in celebration of her birth. It was also wonderful to witness the obvious close friendship that exists between Henry and the rest of the players. Being part of a winning team clearly creates a strong bond.

During the documentary, Henry speaks at length about wanting to write his own legacy. When he arrived at Arsenal, the club were still reliving the glory of the double-winning 1997-98 campaign. He wanted a glory all of his own.

Let’s hope that drive exists within the current squad. They have a chance to do something special this season, and begin to build legends to match those of the figures I was fortunate enough to encounter this week. A nice anecdotal addendum: after the film, Ian Wright came up and explained that his favourite thing about Henry is his palpable dislike of Tottenham.

As for the film itself, I heartily recommend it. UK-based readers can catch it on iTunes (details here), and I believe a DVD release is on the way for those who are based abroad. The film also inspired me to write this piece for Bleacher Report, which you might enjoy: ‘The Invincible who became Immortal’.

Right, enough name-dropping. You’re probably all here for the free goodies alluded to in the headline.

Thanks to the nice guys at Warrior, we’ve got a pair of their brand new ‘Superheat’ boots to give away. They’ve focused on making the boots great for control as well as extremely lightweight.

The techno-babble says:

A revolutionary Tri-fusion construction provides you with limitless touch and speed no matter the conditions, with separate layers for water resistance, support and touch.

The neoweb base layer moulds to your foot, providing freedom of movement, comfort and breathability, complete with a water resistant mesh construction.

The nanocradle sits above and offers support and optimum agility, along with a lightweight, internal membrane heel shield to guarantee protection without sacrificing weight. Finally, the super thin organitouch outer layer gives you the touch you need for close control at high speed.

They sound a bit like they were made by aliens. However, I’ve had a kick around in them myself, and can confirm that they actually managed to make slightly less terrible at football. They’re comfortable and seem to make a nice contact with the ball.

Now, to win these beautiful booties, all you need to do is answering the following Henry-based question:

Q. Against which team did Thierry Henry score his last Arsenal goal?

Simply tweet me your answer including the hash-tag “#superheat” by 6pm (UK-time) tomorrow. A winner will be selected at random.

Good luck, guys.

Finally, keep your eyes peeled tomorrow for a very special Christmas duet…

Man City 6-3 Arsenal: Old habits return as Arsenal die hard

Manchester City 6 – 3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction | My BR piece

This was an entertaining but ridiculous game…
Both sides are renowned for their attractive attacking play, and that manifested in an end-to-end encounter. However, without wanting to go all miserablist and Mourinho-esque about it, to proclaim this game a “great advert for the Premier League” would require overlooking some truly diabolical defensive play.

When you look at clashes between the Premier League’s title-chasers, they are typically cagey, low-scoring games. The stakes are high, and the margins fine. This match, however, was played with all the reckless abandon of a preseason exhibition match.

City will take plenty of plaudits for their stylish swashbuckling, but it’s worth noting that their defending was nearly as bad as ours.

Nearly, but not quite.

Our defending was awful…
This was as bad as it’s been for quite some time. Bear in mind, it’s the first time Arsenal have conceded more than two goals in a game since our opening day defeat to Aston Villa.

The Villa game was something of a freak result, but against City we got the hiding we deserved. I think the last time we defended this badly was probably in the 5-7 farce against Reading last October. This time, however, there’s no Martinez or Djourou to hold up as a scapegoat: to a man, we were poor.

It’s not just the back four who were to blame…
One of the major strengths of the team this season has been the way they’ve defended as a unit.

However, in this match the back four were badly exposed. Arsenal’s midfield simply did not provide the level of protection we have seen since August.

It’s something of a fallacy that the best form of defence is attack, but it’s certainly true that a good form of defence is possession. However, Arsenal didn’t look after the ball sufficiently well today — witness Mesut Ozil’s loose pass that led to City’s crucial third goal.

The timing of the goals was particularly painful…
Conceding an early goal to a set-piece was a huge blow, but at that stage there was plenty of time to claw things back. However, every time Arsenal dragged themselves back in to the game, they turned around and subsequently fired a bullet right in to their own foot. There has been a lot of talk about physical fatigue, but repeatedly conceding just after scoring suggests we’re mentally tired too.

Jack Wilshere should have been one of the fresher players…
However, I thought he was shockingly bad on the day. It was actually quite arresting to see such a technically-gifted player repeatedly give the ball away.

When Flamini was withdrawn in the second half, Wilshere was asked to play the the defensive midfield role. It was something of a disaster.

There’s an understandable desire among Arsenal fans to protect Wilshere: he is a huge prospect and is still recovering from an equally huge lay-off. However, performances like today show just how far he is from getting back to his best.

I’m sorry, Mikel…
Prior to the game, I was one of those who advocated the dropping of Mikel Arteta. Arsene Wenger clearly felt similarly, as he left the Spaniard on the substitutes bench. It was a bold, ruthless selection from Arsene, which I admired — but sometimes gambles fail: Arteta’s positional discipline and intelligent use of the ball were badly missed. I fully expect Arteta to be restored to the side for the Chelsea game.

Olivier Giroud tried manfully…
Considering how little he must have left in the tank, I was impressed by how well Giroud put himself about for most of the game. However, he is now without a goal in five games, and allowed several alluring opportunities to score pass him by. Arsene Wenger was not amused:

One suspects that Sergio Aguero would have snapped up one of the chances Giroud passed up. As good as Giroud can be, Arsenal still have room for improvement alongside or ahead of him.

Of course we were tired…
Before the game, Arsene Wenger insisted he would not blame our heavy fixture schedule. His post-match press conference suggests he’s changed his tune. Several key players looked utterly drained by the 70th minute.

There’s no doubt that City have superior strength in depth. Arsenal have many excellent squad players, but City have no squad players. Almost every footballer in their possession would be good enough to start for them regularly. When they rotate, there is no discernible drop in quality. When we rotate, we play Bendtner.

The one positive was Theo Walcott…
Walcott took both his chances well and showed that he could provide some much-needed support for Olivier Giroud. If he can stay fit he will certainly add a different dimension to our attacking play.

The incident between Ozil and Per wasn’t pretty…
When Ozil neglected to go over and clap the travelling fans, the usually placed Per lost it a bit.

It’s a consequence of frustration on both sides. Ozil was probably embarrassed by the scoreline and his own mistake, and wanted out of there ASAP. Per, as a committed defender, would have been furious to have shipped six goals. I wonder too if he didn’t hold Ozil a little responsible for that misplaced pass when the game was finely balanced at 2-1.

Emotions run high — that’s normal. Hopefully that charged atmosphere can be channeled in a more positive way ahead of our next game.

It’s all about the response…
If Arsenal overcome Chelsea in the next game, much will be forgiven. However, that’s no easy task: Arsene Wenger has never beaten a Jose Mourinho team.

Having been roundly trounced by City, it’s tempting to wonder just how costly that Gerard Deulofeu goal last week might prove to be. Arsenal’s cushion has disappeared and our seat at the top of the table suddenly feels a lot less comfortable.

The stark truth is that Arsenal have lost to each of Manchester United, City and Chelsea this season. Beating the likes of Spurs and Liverpool is one thing, but that titanic trio provide the real acid test. Arsenal will need to win their home games against their closest rivals if they are to stand a chance of lasting the pace.

Napoli 2-0 Arsenal: A bit of perspective

Just a quick one from me tonight.

Tonight was a mixed night for most Arsenal fans. We lost 2-0 to Napoli, but managed to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League. However, looking at some of the mewling and moaning going on among Arsenal fans, you’d think we’d been doomed to imprisonment in the EUROPA League. I’m shocked to see so many fans treating this evening’s result as a disaster.

Perhaps it’s just a vocal minority. But it does perturb me.

In my eyes, qualification from such a treacherous group is a pretty significant achievement. Four wins from six games against teams of this quality is not a record to be sniffed at.

I think most sane Arsenal fans appreciate that. I hope so. Getting out of the group was the priority, and winning it merely a bonus. The most important thing is that we have evaded a draining and depressing assault on that Thursday night monstrosity. Instead, Rafael Benitez has been left to continue his bizarre love affair with that particular competition.

The performance wasn’t great, but Arsenal entered the game in something of an awkward position. We knew a draw would be enough to see us through. That’s never particularly conducive to a stirring showing — witness Bayern Munich’s listless display against us back in March.

It’s a blow to miss out on top spot, but it’s not the end of the world. Surely one of the very reasons we bother to qualify for the Champions League is to enjoy hosting the continent’s finest? I can’t wait to welcome one of Barca, Real, Atletico, Bayern or PSG to the Emirates. If you want to watch Maribor, turn on Channel 5ive.

If you want to win the trophy, you have to beat the top teams somewhere along the line. Better to face up to it early. If we go through, fantastic. If we go out, we have all the more time to focus on our domestic affairs.

Speaking of which, there’s a very big game with Manchester City coming up on Saturday. Should we lose that, it looks as if some people will go in to some kind of meltdown.

That’d be unwise too. There’s a long, long way to go in the title-race. Saturday  will be an indicator, but not a decider.

And you know what? I’m looking forward to it.

If you want more, I’ve written a more conventional match report for ESPN.

Arsenal 1 – 1 Everton: You can’t win them all, annoyingly

Match report | Arsene’s reaction | Highlights

In the end, this was a fair result…
It was a pretty extraordinary game, too. Both sides absolutely went for it: Arsenal because we had the carrot of a seven-point lead before us; Everton because their confidence was buoyed by a win at Old Trafford and they had almost nothing to lose. I was hugely impressed by Roberto Martinez’s side. Granted, we have a couple of big tests coming up in the next fortnight, but Everton are certainly the best team we’ve faced in the Premier League to date.

Everton bossed the first half…

They went for the jugular right from kick-off, and it seemed to catch our team by surprise. Indeed, it took us the best part of 40 minutes to get over our shock and actually start to take the game to the Toffees.

We had two outstanding centre-back performances to thank for being at 0-0 at half-time…

Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were both every bit as good as we’ve come to expect. Romelu Lukaku presented an awkward challenge, and one feared a repeat of the roastings we were regularly given by Didier Drogba – a similarly athletic forward in a blue shirt.
However, both centre-halves were at the top of their game. Koscielny in particular seemed to grow in stature as the game wore on, regularly nipping in to win the ball cleanly before bursting upfield to join the attack. The Frenchman was Arsenal’s best player on the day.

Despite Everton’s first-half dominance, we still had the better chances…
Tim Howard was in good form to deny both Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud. Had our finishing been a touch better, we could have had an unlikely half-time lead.

In the second half, Arsenal looked sharper…

Our punch-drunk opening was banished to memory as we set about imposing ourselves on the game. The balance of possession was significant redressed, and we won plenty more second balls – especially after the introduction of the busy Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini.

Aaron Ramsey had his poorest game for a while…

The Welshman was not at his best, and it’s tempting to put it down to tired legs: this was, after all, his 22nd start of the season.
There were signs of a performance like this coming his way in midweek against Hull. Aside from his delicious assist for Mesut Ozil, Ramsey was unusually wasteful in possession. In the past week, some of his bad habits have crept back in: overly-ambitious passes and unnecessary flicks. He needs to remember that simplicity has been the key to the revival in his game. I’d be tempted to rest him in midweek.

Mesut Ozil, the man for the big occasion, delivered…
If anyone looked likely to make the breakthrough for Arsenal it was Ozil. His last three performances have all been right out of the top drawer of football’s tallest cabinet. When he smartly lifted the ball over Tim Howard and in to the roof of the net, it really felt like we might be watching a defining goal in the Premier League season.

The equaliser was gutting…

A buoyant stadium was silenced by a smashing strike from Gerard Deulofeu. Some have criticised Szczesny for failing to stop the shot, but it really was an excellent hit. It flashed past the Pole and evaporated our hopes of that seven-point lead. Gutting, but probably fair.

The next three games are all massive…

Travelling to the Etihad just days days after a crucial Champions League tie against Napoli does look like a daunting task, but if we are to be champions then these are the kinds of challenges we have to overcome. Beyond that, there’s the home tie with Chelsea, and a chance for Arsene Wenger to finally get one over on Jose Mourinho.
All Arsenal can do is take it one game at a time. Next stop: Naples.